19 October, 2008

Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, New Haven

Italian food is ubiquitous in American cuisine, having been quite thoroughly assimilated in the 150 years since the first great waves of Italian immigrants arrived here in the 19th century. And no Italian food has been more thoroughly Americanized than pizza, that savory flatbread which has taken a place beside hamburgers, hot dogs, and apple pie in the American Food Hall of Fame.

For many pizza lovers, the Northeast is the capitol of American pizza, especially in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, with their large numbers of Italian-American residents. And there, almost central to this pizza-heavy region, is New Haven, where perhaps the best pizza in the US is made.

There are three amazing pizzerias in New Haven: one on State Street (Modern Apizza Place) and two on Wooster Street (Pepe's and Sally's.) Each have their strengths and weaknesses. On this visit to New Haven, we stopped at Pepe's because I'd been jonesing for a Clam Pie for months, and that's Pepe's specialty.

Pepe's is a busy place, and one nearly always has to wait in line to get in. Even though we arrived a little after 3:00 on a Friday afternoon, there were already two parties in front of us. We took a seat on one of the benches in the foyer, and it wasn't long before we were being shown to a booth.

It's not a fancy place. Founded in the mid 1920's, very little has changed in the eighty-some-odd years since Frank Pepe's first tomato pie slid into the now-famous brick oven at the back of the building. The walls are immaculate white, the roomy straight-backed booths finished in black, which matches the painted tin ceilings. Brass numbers on the walls identify each booth. And the menu is simple: pizza, in three sizes (small, medium, large) topped as desired from the choices posted on the wall.

Each of us ordered a different small pizza to get a taste across the spectrum. My wife Maryanne got a pepperoni/mozzarella, my daughter Lynn a spinach/bacon/mozzarella, and I ordered a clam pie with anchovies.

A small pizza at Pepe's is a 10-inch pie if you ask your waitress. What actually comes out of the oven is somewhat larger, however. New Haven style pizza has a very thin crust and is irregular in shape. At Pepe's, each pie is hand-formed, topped, and slid into the superhot coal-fired brick oven on a long-handled wooden pizza peel. Maryanne's pepperoni pie was topped with tiny, delicious slices of pepperoni, the perfect amount of mozzarella cheese, and the barest kiss of tomato sauce featuring pieces of flavorful fresh tomatoes. Lynn's spinach/bacon pizza was similarly perfect, with the same spare spread of tomato sauce, a touch of mozzarella, crisp pieces of thick-sliced bacon, and green stretches of chopped spinach. The thin crusts were soft near the center of the pies, but crunchy-crisp along the edges. Because of the high heat of the oven, crusts generally come out somewhat darker than the mediocre chain-store pizzas so many people order from huts or dot-covered tiles. The smokey, crunchy, almost-burnt crusts are a special treat all by themselves. Lynn, who has eaten pizza from NYC to Boston and all points in between, said that hers was probably the best pizza she has ever tasted. Maryanne praised her pepperoni pizza as well even though she prefers a thicker Connecticut Valley style crust.

As delicious as their pizzas were, however, I reserve special praise for the clam pie. There is nothing at all like it. The crust is lightly brushed with a bit of olive oil, then sprinkled with chopped garlic, freshly shucked clams, grated hard Italian cheeses, and a light sprinkle of dried herbs. It's simply amazing, and well worth the drive downstate from our home near the Massachusetts state line. I added anchovies for an extra fishy bump, but I'll leave them off next time; as much as I love anchovies, the salt kick was a little strong when combined with the grated cheese.

Frank Pepe Pizzaria Napoletana's website



Stephanie in Shanghai said...


I have got to stop reading your blog.

Your making my stomach homesick.

Mr. Dave said...

OK, now I am a big fan of your blog so don't take this the wrong the way but, are you off your nut? Best pizza in America in New Haven?? Connecticut?? No way, the only pizza continuum I recognize starts in Manhattan and degrades the farther you get up I-87 until it terminates in Albany. But in any event it is completely contained within the New York boundaries. Everything else are peripheral variations on a theme. Even the smallest pizza shack on a corner in Suffern beats the pants off most pizza that I have had nation wide, and I have lived all over the joint. Sorry about the spontaneous explosion of Empire State pride.

Dave said...

LOL, well, at least you're not trying to tell me that the only "real" pizza is that deep-dish stuff they sell in Chicago.